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Why Did Our Torah Commentator Smash Bottles and Idols?

Why Did Our Torah Commentator Smash Bottles and Idols?

An Interview with Dr. Ruhama Weiss

Glass wine bottle in the process of shattering

Dr. Ruhama Weiss, parallel professor of Talmud and of spiritual care at the Jerusalem campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR), the Reform Movement’s seminary, has mobilized her talents as a scholar, artist, poet, and public intellectual to challenge our assumptions as she examines the intersection of ancient texts and human experience.

It is the job of sages and scholars, she insists in her Ten Minutes of Torah (TMT) commentary on this week’s portion, B’midbar (Numbers, Chapter 1), to “uproot that which previous generations proposed and offer fresh innovations” and new rabbinic interpretations of Torah as new information emerges.

Much of Weiss’ work has focused on gender issues, and she does not hold back in exposing sexual aggression against women in the patriarchal culture of classical Judaism. This is evident in her TMT commentary on Naso (Numbers, Chapter 5), which describes the sotah (wayward woman) ritual administered by Temple priests to test the guilt or innocence of a woman who has been accused by her husband of adultery: ….The priest shall bare the woman’s head [and say]…“If you have gone astray while married...may  this water that induces the spell enter your body, causing the belly to distend and the thigh to sag.”

Weiss sees this “test” as a punishment and public humiliation that rises to the level of “a holy rape.” And it is done with the complicity of husbands, who are permitted to be unfaithful to their wives with impunity.

It is perhaps ironic that this feminist oriented scholar first learned about the sotah ritual at Jerusalem’s Orthodox Horev elementary school for religious girls. “That experience was chilling but formative,” she told Haaretz reporter Tamar Rotem, who covered Weiss’ 2006 installation in Jerusalem of “Beit Midrash Shel Hasotah (The Wayward Woman’s House of Study).

Weiss furnished what she called her “very female, painful house of study” with hand sculpted papier-mâché chairs, similar in shape to the kind used in yeshivas, except that her creations are flesh colored, have women's feet with red-lacquered nails in front, and breasts with nipples inlaid with colorful stones in back.

For a week, Weiss silently studied the Talmudic tractate Sotah, subsisting solely on carobs and water and taking breaks only to sleep. Her contemplations, she told the reporter, included the question: Why were the Talmudic sages so preoccupied with sotah  – devoting an entire tractate – though the ritual had long been abandoned? Their fascination with the text, she surmised, was driven by male sexual desires and fantasies.

Weiss’ performance art video, “A Woman Breaks – Yalta’s Beit Midrash” (Yalta’s House of Study), shows her furiously smashing 400 bottles of wine against an altar of rocks in the spirit of an act of defiance inspired by Yalta, the daughter of a wealthy Jewish leader and wife of the great sage Rav Nachman in Babylonia around 250 C.E.

Ulla, an important rabbinic scholar from Eretz Yisrael (the land of Israel), came for dinner at the home of Yalta and Rav Nachman. The visitor apparently came with an agenda: to persuade influential Babylonian Jews to adopt Jerusalem customs.

Consequently, at the meal, Ulla did not serve the blessed cup to Yalta, even though Rav Nachman asked him to do so. The guest explained that a woman’s body is blessed from the fruit of a man’s body. Weiss interprets this statement to mean that “women do not need the blessing because they are blessed from having intercourse.”

Yalta got up in a rage, went upstairs to where the wine was stored, and smashed 400 jars, sending wine raining down on the men below.

Weiss reenacted this Talmudic episode by smashing 400 bottles of wine to experience and demonstrate what Yalta might have felt – the anger, sadness, and despair that results when you think nobody will appreciate you, no matter what you do.

In her TMT commentary on Balak (read it on Monday, July 15) Weiss writes that we were not born into this world to enjoy, but to be tested. “I believe,” she writes, “that the test is to preserve the image of God, even under extremely difficult conditions.” In the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, that test requires protecting “the image of God in all people” by rejecting our own pre-conceived notions and shattering our own idols.

“We admire Abraham,” she says, “for being brave enough to destroy the idols of his father. We should not be afraid that our children might one day do the same to us, and Judaism will disappear, like everything else in the world. The fact that I am a Jew is to say it is important to me, my way to do the right things in the eyes of God and people. It is not the only way.”

When asked if the Kotel, the Western Wall, is a place of idolatry, Weiss said, “the attachment to walls costs lives. It is even worse than idolatry, and we pay a high price… My son [as an Israeli soldier] eventually will risk his life for stones and graves.”

As there is no escape from “this planet drowning in rivers of hate and murder,” Weiss writes, “The responsibility for the violence and destruction is mine, ours. We must speak out, demonstrate love and human solidarity in our public squares and in our private homes.”

And that is what Ruhama Weiss strives to do every day.

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Aron Hirt-Manheimer is the Union for Reform Judaism's editor-at-large.
Photo credit: Rose Eichenbaum

Aron Hirt-Manheimer
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